The last time I saw Rob we met him at a local coffee shop. He was wearing a pair of shorts and had a boyish haircut, and if it wasn’t for his sheer size and the scars on his arms, you might think he was twenty years younger than he is.
“It was the best work experience I had in my whole life,” he told me during that meeting. “I never woke up thinking I don’t want to go down there. Then my mom died, and I made that same choice I always do. I don’t have a whole lot of resilience. It’s like a skip in a record that always goes back to the same song: booze and pills. Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to get out of bed.”
And yet, Rob helped shape that farm. And by his own account, Sole Food did its work on him too: “I am proud to say I was part of something from its genesis to its teens. There was this one morning during the second season that says it all. It was 4:00 a.m. and I was standing on the farm in the middle of the city and I looked around and I felt like I was communing in church.”
Stories like this this one from Rob are bittersweet for me. We build something like church, and offer opportunities for community, but we cannot save people. I have to remind myself that neither Seann nor I are social workers or therapists; nor are we physicians or psychologists. Indeed, I am often asked if we have a social worker on our staff or which one of us is trained to help the range of folks who seek work at Sole Food. And while we would love to have the financial resources to have hire such a position, we see therapy happening in other ways: harvesting carrots, seeding salad or radishes, preparing the soil for a planting, hearing a loyal customer at the farmers market express pleasure in the foods we provide.
We believe in the power of growing food and nourishing others as a way of healing our ourselves and our world. Our job has been to set the table, provide the foundation for something to happen, based on the belief that the simple act of planting a seed can bring new life to the world.
Salvation is a big idea—no one does it to you or for you. I never got into this work to save anyone, but I believe that simple things can help in profound ways. I know from experience, for instance, that salvation can come from the soil. It happens when you get your hands in it, when you learn how to maintain its nutrition and biology, when you cultivate and keep it open and oxygenated. It’s no different for you or me; to stay well you need to be well nourished, hydrated, to breathe deeply and to stay open. These are basic principles for human health and for plant health as well.
And so, I farm because I want to eat well. I also farm so I’ll have stories like this to tell. What’s more, farming, like storytelling, keeps me sane. I’ve come to know that if you provide someone with a living organism to care for, something that she cannot leave alone even for a day, something that depends on her for its survival and wellbeing, then you’ve given that person a reason to live and stay well. This person will have to be present, pay attention and step away from her troubles because there are plants and animals and people who depend on her.
Sole Food was built on this very simple idea: rehabilitation through meaningful work. Growing food is high on the list of meaningful work. It brings us down to real basics, allows us to see cause and effect play out daily, to see how our action or inaction creates interaction. We feed the soil that feeds the plants that feed us. We begin to sense how working with plants and soil and sunlight and rain and wind can heal us.
Good farmers know that to be successful one must be immersed in a consummate love affair—with the land, with the living soil, and with the broader community who eat our food. We know that this work alone will not heal the folks who come to work with us. We have no illusions that a farm or good food or real work will help everyone get healthy. But the raw biology, the simplicity and physicality of the work, the magic of seeds emerging, plants thriving, food being harvested and filling boxes and bellies, in places where there was nothing but hardscape and trash and rubble, this is recovery. Experiencing it will touch and change you.
Excerpted from “Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier” by Michael Ableman
Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia―one of the worst urban slums in North America―who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. It is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.
Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the 1970′s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. Ableman is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work.